Raptor, Kio grumbled internally, is a name that is hard to get used to.
For around five hours now, the bone dragons had been circling around Nashido. The Benefactor–Raptor–had spoken to them several more times since his first speech had gone over so well. His tone had not lost its fire, but it had become more instructional, an inspired manager giving rapid dictation. The first time Kio snuck near enough to listen, he found that Raptor was speaking in a language he couldn’t parse: a series of clicks and moans punctuated by gestures, all of which the Neogah seemed to understand.
He was giving them directions. To what objective, Kio had no idea.
The events of five hours prior left Kio in a daze. He wandered the castle, half-in and half-out of a fugue, entering rooms and realizing he had no reason to be there. He mulched the same vegetable patch three times. He oiled an oxygen vine. In a high solarium, he caught sight of Medwick entering through the opposite door, and slammed his own shut hurriedly. However right the priest may have been about Karla, he was not ready to have a conversation with the man just now.
But that meant he had to keep ambling about Nashido, up and down stairs, sometimes using the pullies just for something to do. That meant he had to watch the dragons–Neogah–and feel a twinge of terror within him every time he saw one perched like a gull atop a tower or cruising in lazy circles around the darkening sky.
I have to tell Karla, he’d always think, reflexively. We have to protect each other.
When Raptor had sent word through Medwick that he wished to see Kio in a banquet room on the aft side, he was too relieved to be unnerved. He quickly found the spot. The door creaked several times like a giggling spirit as he pushed it open.
In a short time, Raptor had transformed the place. Kio knew this room only as a stuffy, cluttered sephulcre they only used for sleeping in when they were bored of the bedrooms. But somehow–some items would have to have been thrown out of the windows–Raptor had made it into a reception hall that commanded respect. The god sat on a high-backed chair behind a long table that rose up from an empty red carpet like a mountain soaringfrom a sea of blood. Through the window, dark clouds drifted, promising a cold wind.
Raptor had transformed himself, too. He had shed his grey woolen suit in favor of a black shirt and a dark red hooded cloak lined with fur. Under gunmetal-grey trousers, his boots were sturdy and practical, but his eyes gleamed with something more beneath his black hair.
He was a king in this space. A god. He’d have to be to not freeze to death in an outfit like that.
“Sit, Kio,” he said, smiling when the boy came in. He’d prepared another tall chair for Kio on the same side of the table. Kio sat, willing himself to stop trembling–it meant falling for the same trick the bone dragons had, and that was just embarrassing.
“I suppose you’re exceedingly confused,” Raptor told him when he had turned his chair to face Kio’s.
Kio cast around. “Confused…isn’t the right word. I understand what’s happening. I still have a few issues with why.”
“Why?” Raptor leaned back in his chair, tipping two legs off the floor. “That’s rather easy to explain. The Neogah have an insatiable lust for the Heartsphere, you see, and power sources like it–they can smell them miles away. It’s just rotten luck that so many of them converged at once. But fortunate in the end, of course, since we managed to win them over to our cause.”
Raptor’s smile evaporated. He leaned close to Kio, starting the young man shaking all over again.
“I am sorry to have to involve you in this,” he said. “But then again, it is what I raised your family from the surface to do. If anyone is prepared for this fight, it’s you.”
“I thought you raised us to be ambassadors. To connect the sky to the surface.”
“Dear skies, no! Your ancestors never touched the surface after I lifted them. They took pleasure in playing go-between with the sky kingdoms, but that was always ancillary to their true duty. Each lord knew the burden, and carried my first order with him, to never enter the Heartsphere. Your father Sieno would have shared the truth with you when you came of age.”
“I already knew.” Kio squirmed, knowing he had broken this rule. There would be some sort of awful punishment, he was certain. Right here in this room if his usual luck held.
“You knew that I commanded the Rokhshan never to enter the sphere,” Raptor said. “But not the whole story. You see, the Heartsphere has massive power. Beyond even what the Neogah can sense.”
Here it comes. Kio tensed, waiting to be struck, or blasted into a thousand pieces with divine energy.
Instead, Raptor smiled. “I told you I’ve watched you, Kio. I know what you had to do to survive the Ash Cloud. I would never condemn you for making the same mistake I made.”
“You mean…” Kio felt blasted. He set about reminding himself he wasn’t.
“Yes. I entered the heartsphere as well, a thousand years ago. It is where I gained the burden I still carry.”
A thousand years. About the length of the history of House Rokhshan. The Benefactor had transformed into a bone dragon, then had uplifted surface people to become a noble house, in order to…
“Do you know what this place is?” Raptor asked.
“It’s, um…a dining hall. On Castle Nashido. Floating in the sky.”
“You believe it is the palace of your house? Or an embassy? Or a monument?”
“Yeah. All those things. Isn’t it?”
Raptor’s gaze had shifted to a point over Kio’s shoulder. Twisting around, Kio saw two of the Neogah, circling around and around a dark eastern horizon where long rays of light shone toward a dark nexus. Anti-crepuscular rays, they were called, created when the sun tilted through the clouds at just the right angle.
“It is a fortress,” Raptor said. “Built to defend against an endless siege.”
His eyes locked again on Kio’s. “The Ash Cloud will not stop. It will come again, and again–ever more frequent, more poisonous. Its objective is to reach the Heartsphere, and only Nashido stands in its way. Nashido…and the Rokhshan.”
Kio’s shaking, this time, had nothing to do with Raptor’s force of personality. “You mean the reason this castle exists–the reason my family exists–is all to stop the cloud from touching the Heartsphere?”
“And this is what I mean,” Raptor said, sounding prouder than ever, “When I say that you have carried on your family’s legacy more bravely than I could ever have expected of you. You magnificent Lord Rokhshan.”
“I…” It wasn’t right not to say it. “I wasn’t alone.”
Raptor darkened. “Karla did her part,” he admitted. “But she carries the lineage of the Harpooneers, who would have inadvertently done the Ash Cloud’s bidding ten years ago. If I know her well enough, she will return to finish the job.”
“She’d never do that!” Kio blurted out.
He regretted it right away. Raptor didn’t respond, just sat in silence, letting Kio figure out the implications of what he had just said.
Karla wasn’t coming back. She had no reason to. She’d found her people.
Their promise was broken.
“Tell me what will happen if the cloud touches the sphere.” He needed to know. Needed Raptor to tell him what his life would mean now.
“The Ash Cloud is only a few miles across at its widest,” Raptor explained. “But the Heartsphere’s power is great enough to magnify it ten-thousandfold. If the Ash Cloud enters it, its poison will emerge strong enough to cover the entire world.”
He stood, and Kio followed him to the window. Far below on the surface, the last crescent of sunlight was sinking away from the Big Island.
“The people there will not survive,” Raptor went on. “Not even the meanest shepherd, nor their greatest emperor. Nor Karla, nor any of us. Picture a world of death, all its life choked off in an endless night. A void where warmth used to be. A planet rendered comatose.” He put a hand on Kio’s shoulder. “We must build more to prevent it. We must arm.”
A million years ago, he’d pitched an argument with Karla about this very subject: fight the bone dragons or research the magical runes. He’d been adamant that turning Nashido into a fortress had been a waste of time. He had to laugh now at his wrongheadedness.
A fortress was all it had ever been. And a Rokhshan was all Kio ever would be.
Never to touch the surface. Bound to a grand destiny in the sky.
When he thought of it that way, all the fuss about their clockwork raven seemed foolish. No more fugues. No more vendettas against seagulls. No more missing Karla. He had his destiny now.
He turned to Raptor and said, “I’m with you.”
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